Some random thoughts as the nativist campaign builds up a head of steam:
1. For any given amount of total immigration, it’s obviously better to have a larger fraction of that total be legal. That’s especially true if we’re worried about terrorism. So tight quotas and weak enforcement — our current policy mix — gives us the worst of both worlds.
2. If we want less illegal immigration, sealing the border and making illegals felons won’t help much, as long as illegals can find work. But if there aren’t jobs for them, they’ll stop coming. That means:
(a) An easy way for an employer to determine whether the person standing in front of him has the right to work in this country: a list, accessible on-line, of citizens plus green-card holders, with enough biometric data to quickly verify that the person is who he claims to be. If a national census seems too invasive of privacy, skip the names and just store the biometrics. To get my fingerprint or retina image or whatever into the data-base, I need to show proof of citizenship or lawful permanent residency, but the data-base itself doesn’t need to have my name, or anything else about me. If the information-processing and communications capacity isn’t there now, wait five years: a blink in policy time, an aeon in technological time. That’s why the good Lord gave us Moore’s Law.
(b) Tough penalties for employers who employ illegals.
(c) Big rewards — I’d propose green cards — for any illegal who turns in an employer for hiring him. You wouldn’t have to actually give those rewards very often, because the threat of putting himself at his employee’s mercy would discourage any sane employer from playing games.
3. Insofar as immigration is legal, we get to set the terms. I’d propose a simple rule: no one comes in who can’t speak, read, and write English. I’m not a hard-core assimilationist; I think that Americans tend to under-invest in learning about their ancestral cultures. We all lost something when Yiddish died, and too many Irish-Americans think Tara was where Scarlett O’Hara grew up. But the advantages, to immigrants and to the country, of having our citizens-to-be start out literate in the national language — which is also the world business language — seem to me obvious. As Net access becomes more and more nearly universal, so does access to the tools to learn English up to the rudimentary level which is all we ought to ask for. I’m reluctant to discriminate on the basis of social class, but I don’t mind using intelligence and drive as filters.
4. Any guest-worker program runs aground on the shoal of the Fourteenth Amendment, making the U.S.-born children of guest workers citizens.
5. Brad DeLong is right: the biggest beneficiaries of immigration are immigrants, and those benefits ought to count. If we want to help low-income Americans, there are better ways to do it than restricting immigration. No, we can’t let in the entire world, but having grabbed a pretty nice continent from its original inhabitants we shouldn’t be too eager to pull up the ladder behind us. FDR, whose ancestors moved to New Amsterdam sometime in the Seventeenth Century, summed up the case nicely when he began his address to the Daughters of the American Revolution with “My fellow immigrants … “
6. Tyler Cowen is right: Mexican immigration to the U.S. is also very good for Mexico, and the economic and political welfare of Mexico matters enormously to the U.S. If Mexico gets rich, that part of the immigration problem will mostly solve itself.
Mickey Kaus hopes that, now that racism and homophobia are somewhat out of fashion, the Republicans can return to their Know-Nothing roots and make nativism a winning issue, without damaging their chances of capturing an increasing share of the (non-Cuban) Latino vote. I hope he’s wrong.
(And Mickey, just for the record: there’s a difference between taking a long-term polical hit to accomplish a major social goal, as the Democrats did by pushing civil rights in the 1960s, and taking a long-term political hit for short-term political gain, as California Republicans did by pushing the anti-immigrant Prop. 187. An “enforcement-only” bill that doesn’t crack down on employers, which none of the Republican proposals do, is sure to fail substantively.)
As Lincoln said in rejecting the Know-Nothings (or, as they called themselves, the “American Party”) and its doctrine of reduced immigration from Ireland, tightened rules for naturalization, and denial of voting rights to non-citizens:
Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation we began by declaring that “All men are created equal.” We now practically read it “All men are created equal, except Negroes.” When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “All are created equal, except Negroes and foreigners and Catholics.” When it comes to this, I shall prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty — to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.